This could be the year that Mount Zion puts all of the pieces together.
Dale Schuring, the former longtime Arthur-Lovington boys basketball coach, enters his fourth season at Mount Zion with 418 wins to his name.
After a 29-50 record in his first three seasons, those around the Apollo believe that this is the year that the Braves could jump to the top.
However, Mahomet-Seymour has a major “what if” scenario, while nobody can ever count out the Hall of Famer Neil Alexander and what the Lincoln Railsplitters can do in their final season in the Apollo Conference.
Both Coles County coaches believe the Braves have a successful group of players. The Braves lost All-Apollo First Team selection Ethan Hamrick, who was one of four seniors, but the team returns three starters. That features 6-foot-6 senior forward and All-Apollo Second Team selection Carson Cuddy, while senior Kam Clark and sophomore Sam Driscoll will fill out the rest of the frontcourt.
Schuring noted that the team has shooting, athleticism, and depth, but said his team will need to work on rebounding and half-court defense. However, with three sophomores in Driscoll, Lincoln Koester, and Brayden Timble playing minutes as freshmen, those around the Apollo believe the Braves have developed some talent to put them near the top of the conference standings.
“As of right now, I think Mt. Zion would be considered the favorite,” said Mattoon coach Brandon Jones. “They are coming off a successful season – and with a young, talented, and tall group of players.”
Both Effingham coach Obie Farmer and Charleston coach A.J. Alexander echoed similar sentiments.
“I see Mt Zion being a strong favorite to win the conference this year due to all of their young talent last season that are returning this season,” said Alexander. “Lots of solid guard play they have going for them.”
Despite finishing 16-14 and 6-6 in the Apollo, some coaches believe Mahomet-Seymour could make a jump towards the top of the conference. The football players got a late start after finishing their season in the Elite 8, while there is uncertainty about the future of former First-Team All-Apollo selection Blake Wolters, who is signed to pitch at Purdue.
Even if Wolters graduates early, the team brings back core juniors that have a ton of experience.
“The Apollo Conference is tough and they are all quality programs, but Mt. Zion has a very skilled group of young guys that have a little experience and I think will be very tough,” said Farmer. “Mahomet had a bunch of juniors last year so they will have old guys with a lot of experience and they are always physical and aggressive.”
For now, those around the league appear to be sleeping on Lincoln. The Railsplitters finished last season 25-8 and 11-1 in the Apollo to run away with the conference title. The team lost First-Team All-Apollo selection Elijah Pollice but returned Second-Team selection Payton Cook.
The team lost some height in 6-foot-5 forward Jaden Klopp, but the team lost only three seniors.
Lincoln is a contender every year and Coach Alexander always has his group coached up and running their zone and open offense well,” said Farmer.
Behind Lincoln was Charleston at 8-4 in the Apollo and 18-11 for the season. The Trojans lost First-Team selection Jaksen Burgess but return Second-Team senior William Applegate. The Trojans lost five significant contributing seniors from last year’s group and will have questions regarding who surrounds Applegate and Caleb Oakley.
“Our senior leaders both started last season as juniors,” said Alexander. “Both can be versatile threats on offense and defense. I’m excited for their last ride at CHS.”
Mahomet-Seymour, Mount Zion, and Taylorville finished 6-6 in the Apollo last season.
Gone from Taylorville is First-Team selection, Bryce Friederich. Head coach Ryan Brown said there are several talented players in the conference that should make this season interesting.
“If Blake Wolters from Mahomet-Seymour is playing and not graduating this semester, he’s the lone first-team all-conference player returning from last year,” said Brown. “Otherwise, Payton Cook from Lincoln and William Applegate from Charleston could be outstanding. Mt. Zion’s two sophomore guards Lincoln Koester and Sammy Driscoll will be very tough for everyone to guard. Garrett Wolfe from Effingham could be very good if he’s 100 percent healthy and Carson Cuddy from Mt. Zion is a very good shooter at 6-6.”
Mattoon finished sixth in the conference last year at 4-8 and 14-17 overall. The team lost Second-Team selection Sam Bradbury but returns three varsity contributors in Christian Larson, Blaine Powers, and Tariek Grace. With a new head coach in Jones, the Wave could experience some growing pains but are hopeful to be ready for when the conference season begins.
“It’s a new system that all of the players are learning along with learning what their new coach is expecting,” said Jones. “It’s still too early to see who is going to rise to the occasion this season.”
Effingham was last in the conference last year at 1-11 and 10-22 overall. The team returns Second-Team selection Garrett Wolfe after losing five seniors, including four starters.
“We have only had a few practices but all of our guys seem to be pretty even,” said Farmer. “They play hard and are eager to get better.”
Top Returning Apollo Players
William Applegate – Charleston
Garrett Wolfe – Effingham
Blake Wolters – Mahomet-Seymour
Carson Cuddy – Mount Zion
Payton Cook – Lincoln
Predicted Conference Standings
2. Mount Zion